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SEIU Members Face Off in Dispute Over Leadership, Direction of One of Nation’s Largest Unions

StoryFebruary 15, 2008
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A major battle is brewing within the Service Employees International Union, one of the country’s largest unions with 1.9 million members. Last week, executive committee member Sal Rosselli resigned in a blistering letter accusing union president Andy Stern of expanding his powers at members’ expense. We host a debate between Rosselli and another executive board member, Dave Regan. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the issue of organized labor and a major battle brewing within one of the country’s largest unions, the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, which has about 1.9 million members. Last week, the president of SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, Sal Rosselli, resigned from SEIU’s executive committee in a blistering letter to union President Andy Stern, accusing him of expanding his powers at members’ expense.

Rosselli wrote, “Over the past two years, a stark difference has evolved between SEIU’s projected image and its real world practices. An overly zealous focus on growth — growth at any cost — apparently has eclipsed SEIU’s commitment to its members.” Rosselli went on to write, “It is said democracy dies in darkness. It is with deep disappointment and great concern that I have watched dark shadows fall upon SEIU, diminishing our hopes for revitalizing the labor movement.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sal Rosselli joins us now from San Francisco. We’re also joined on the telephone by Dave Regan, the president of SEIU District 1199, representing healthcare workers in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. He is a member of the executive committee and the executive board of the SEIU.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Sal Rosselli, why did you resign?

SAL ROSSELLI: I resigned because a series of events that happened the last several weeks, culminating two-and-a-half years of struggle with inside SEIU, fundamental difference in ideology and direction. And the easiest way I can describe it is bottom-up versus top-down, empowering workers to be in control of their lives, in control of their relationship with their employer versus centralizing control and power among a few in Washington, D.C. to control the resources and decision-making authority relationship with these employers.

The last couple of weeks, a couple of events made us decide to — our 100-person elected rank-and-file executive board decide to resign from this political committee appointed by Andy Stern to help lead the union, because there’s a code of conduct on this committee which prohibits anyone from speaking outside of the committee. You know, we believe in collective action and collective decision-making, but when a majority violates our fundamental principles around rank-and-file democracy worker voice, we decided that we could no longer be a part of that process, that we needed to shed light on the direction that SEIU is going around centralizing power and decision-making among a few in Washington, D.C.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dave Regan, you issued a letter, along with several other leaders of the international executive board, criticizing Sal Rosselli’s move. What’s your perspective on what’s wrong about what he’s done?

DAVE REGAN: I think what Sal has done and what he is doing, it’s shameful, it’s unprincipled, it’s dishonest. And Sal knows it. And what he just went through, you know, in terms of this explanation, you know, it’s ironic to me. You know, SEIU absolutely makes decisions in a legitimate, a principled and a democratic way. Sal has been a key leader and involved in every major leadership discussion in the union for twelve years. He has participated in all of the important decision-making conversations in SEIU.

And I think honestly that what’s going on in Sal’s decision to publicly attack the integrity of our union hasn’t a thing to do with democracy and rank-and-file participation. It really is about an agenda, where, truth be told, Sal’s agenda, that because he has not gotten his way in California and in other places, he’s now willing to really just illegitimately attack the rest of us. And Sal knows that. In his own resignation letter, he admits that he will no longer abide by democratic majority decisions that are made in SEIU. Well, to most of us, that’s democracy. But apparently, in Sal’s view of democracy, when you lose a debate and you lose a democratic vote, you can then turn your back on your sisters and your brothers in the union, you can attack people’s integrity.

And his actions right now, unfortunately, are going to have the result of weakening the strength of members in SEIU all across the country to make progress in their lives. And that, to me, is the irony of this. Sal wants to dress up his personal agenda in all of this highfalutin rhetoric. And the truth be told, at the end of the day, the bottom line is, his actions, unfortunately, are going to result in members having less strength and ability to confront the employers that we deal with every single day.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Some of the substantive issues that were raised in his letter, in Rosselli’s letter, one of the things that he claims is that union president, International President Andy Stern, had secret meetings with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to — above over the heads of the California members of the union, to fashion a proposed healthcare plan that went down actually to defeat a few weeks ago in California. Could you respond to that charge?

DAVE REGAN: Yeah. It’s just categorically untrue. It didn’t happen. You know, Andy Stern is the elected president of SEIU. Andy Stern meets with lots of elected officials and governors on behalf of the union all of the time. And Andy did not conduct a series of secret meetings with Governor Schwarzenegger, and, once again, Sal knows that.

What Sal is really upset about is that there was a difference of opinion in California. You know, Sal’s view didn’t always carry the day, and then when other people act legitimately as a result of a collective decision-making process, but sometimes not the way Sal would like to see, you know, we get this kind of conduct. So I think it’s just categorically untrue. It’s unfortunate. And Andy deserves better, and our union deserves better from someone like Sal, who is himself an insider at the highest levels of SEIU.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sal Rosselli, your response?

SAL ROSSELLI: Well, first of all, Dave’s comments are disingenuous at best. And full detail of his letter to me, a rank-and-file’s response to him can be viewed on seiuvoice.org, our website that contains all of these documents.

Let me give you a specific example of what triggered this. About a year and a half ago, we were in bargaining with our nursing home workers, and UHW, our local union, is the second-largest union of nursing home workers in the country. We discovered some top down deals made between SEIU D.C. leaders and staff with our nursing home employers that exchanged the right to organize un-union homes with template agreements that severely limit the collective bargaining rights of workers, limit their voice to speak up for them and their patients. We constructively, internally, blew a whistle on this and criticized these agreements.

In response to that, Andy Stern ended bargaining with these employers and had the constitutional authority to appoint the bargaining committee to talk to these workers’ bosses. Dave, you were a member of that committee. I recall a meeting at a Los Angeles airport hotel, where you flew in, met with fifteen leaders of our thousands of nursing home workers that were in bargaining with these employers, accepted petitions from them, thousands of their coworkers signed petitions demanding a seat at that bargaining table with those employers. You took the petitions, dismissed their request and went into bargaining with those employers without any voice from the workers that should have the relationship with this boss. That’s the example — that’s just one of many examples of limiting voice of workers.

This is not about me. This is not about Rosselli or Stern at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Sal Rosselli, let’s get Dave Regan’s response to that, president of SEIU District 1199, representing the workers in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia.

DAVE REGAN: Sure, no, listen. Sal knows that the reason that myself and an executive vice president of the union, you know, participated in a meeting with California employers was, we did not go and bargain with California employers. Sal knows that. Sal knows that I reported to him every one of those conversations. The problem was, we had a leadership problem in California in terms of our nursing home work, because Sal’s local union would not abide by decisions that were made collectively. And when Sal’s representatives engaged in bargaining, we had a breakdown in bargaining, because we were having an internal fight in front of the employers. We failed to do our jobs, and Sal’s local union was absolutely critical to that taking place. And Andy Stern rightfully exercised his legitimate responsibilities to try to, you know, corral the bargaining and get it back on track. But nobody bargained for Sal, and Sal knows that. Did we meet with his members? Did I meet with his members? We absolutely did.

You know, here’s the thing. We can lose the forest for the trees here. We’re having an internal political fight in SEIU. There’s no question about that. Sal is leading that fight. But the fact remains, SEIU is organizing more workers in America than any other union. We are improving the lives of more workers through collective bargaining than any other union in America. We’re not perfect. We don’t claim to be. We struggle every day to get better. And the tragedy of this is Sal Rosselli, because of his personal agenda, is willing to diminish and attack and ultimately, apparently, try to destroy lots of good work that’s done by hundreds of thousands and millions of people. I’m a trade unionist. I thought Sal Rosselli was a trade unionist. This is the absolute most despicable kind of behavior that Sal is willing, through his actions, on this program, in California and other places, to weaken the strength of members of my local union in Ohio and West Virginia and Kentucky. It is contemptible, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the principles Sal wants to claim.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dave Regan, I’d like to ask you, because you said to look at the big picture on this issue, and I have a question, which I have asked many SEIU leaders over the years, some of whom were very good friends of mine, about the strategy of growth that SEIU has, which often involves making deals with political — with government officials, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, that allow the union to grow with government support in exchange for the unions providing political support, whether it’s to Governor Pataki in New York or the Republican leader of the Senate, Joe Bruno, in New York that 1199 has done, or whether the allegations that the union was attempting to do a deal with Schwarzenegger in California to allow it to unionize 100,000 daycare workers in exchange for its political support for the governor. That kind of growth, some people say, is more in the union’s membership growth interest, but not the interest of the overall labor movement or working people in general. How do you respond to that?

DAVE REGAN: When I look at the — let’s talk about the big picture. When I look at the big picture, I see an American labor movement that has been in steady decline for fifty years. One in twelve American workers in the private sector now have a union. Only 12 percent of all workers in America have unions. And SEIU — and I think this is a fair characterization — more so than any other union in the country, is focused on how do we give workers the chance to join together and form a union. And, you know — and we are all the time trying to figure that out in the best way. So the fact that in the last ten years, literally one million American workers have had the opportunity to join our union and improve their lives, you know, and engage in collective bargaining, the results of which always must be ratified by a vote of rank-and-file members — you know, no contracts get approved until rank-and-file members vote on them — is something I am extraordinarily proud of.

Now, are we politically active? Yes, we are.

JUAN GONZALEZ: If we can, we have about a minute.

DAVE REGAN: But that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dave Regan, we have about a minute. Sal Rosselli, your response?

SAL ROSSELLI: The problem is, is that these top-down agreements don’t get bargained by workers. There’s a — we’re going in a direction of growth at all cost. We’ve lost the needed balance to raise standards of workers with the growth. There are — it’s true that this growth has been tremendous, and I’m proud — we are SEIU and proud that SEIU is the fastest-growing union in this country.

DAVE REGAN: Then why are you attacking us, Sal?

SAL ROSSELLI: But tens of thousands of long-term care workers are living in poverty.

DAVE REGAN: Why are you attacking us publicly? You can’t be proud and attack the union —-


DAVE REGAN: — that you want to claim you love.

SAL ROSSELLI: seiuvoice.org, look at the voice of the workers that are —-

DAVE REGAN: That is dishonest, Sal. It is dishonest.

AMY GOODMAN: Mr. Regan, let Sal Rosselli finish.

SAL ROSSELLI: Yeah, if I could ask folks to visit our website, seiuvoice.org, and you’ll see these documents, the voice of workers, right? That’s who our union is, bottom-up, not top-down. They need to -— workers need to be empowered to be in control of the relationship with their employers. This June, we have a convention, and our goal there is to limit the constitutional authority of the SEIU president with worker voice, to limit that authority through a very democratic way. One member, one vote, bottom-up. Social union versus business union.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow the developments within the Service Employees International Union, as well as labor unions around this country. Sal Rosselli, president of SEIU United Healthcare Workers West, just resigned from the executive board of the executive committee. Dave Regan, president of SEIU District 1199, representing healthcare workers in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.

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